How do African buffalo defend themselves from lions?

African Buffalo Defense

These lions at Chobe National Park in Botswana aren't quite sure if they feel lucky.
These lions at Chobe National Park in Botswana aren't quite sure if they feel lucky.
Panthera Production/Gallo Images/Getty Images

The breath of a lion isn't what you want to experience in the last moments of your life, especially when that lion is suffocating you with its mouth. Here's how the African buffalo tries to prevent death by lion:

  • Stay awake. Compared to the 20-plus daily hours of sleep a lion gets, African buffalo sleep minutes at a time, for a daily total of around two hours. This helps prevent rude awakenings.
  • The nose knows. African buffalo have an excellent sense of smell, and a whiff of lion will put them on high alert. Their sense of sight and hearing aren't as keen, but it helps that a lion's roar can be heard up to 5 miles (8 kilometers) away [source: Smithsonian].
  • When possible, travel by water. Lions are reluctant to get in the water, and buffaloes take advantage of this by traveling that way as often as possible. In isolated areas like an island in the Okavango Delta in Botswana, lions have conquered this fear to catch their prey, and moving regularly through the water has made these muscular lions some of the largest seen in Africa [source: National Geographic]. For the most part, however, water equals safety (from lions, that is -- crocodiles are entirely another matter).
  • Stick together. Most African buffalo casualties are older lone males who have been forced out of the herd due to aggressive behavior that is no longer welcomed by their younger replacements and the females who love them.
  • Stand by your man. When the herd travels, the smaller, younger and weaker buffalo stay in the middle, and the stronger males lead and form the protective outer ring of the herd.
  • Offense is the best defense. African buffalo will often sneak up on sleeping lions, charging through and scattering the surprised lions, trampling the heavier sleepers and then hunting down cubs.
  • Retreat! The herd's first instinct when faced with a lion attack is to turn tail and run. This is a good strategy for the vast majority of the herd, but stragglers will be picked off and killed. However, a buffalo on the run can be as dangerous as a buffalo on the attack --at 6 feet (1.8 meters) tall and 1,500 pounds (680 kilograms), a buffalo's sharp hooves can be driven deep into anything unlucky enough to find itself underfoot.
  • Call upon your jungle friends. White birds called oxpeckers roost upon the buffalo, feeding on ticks and fleas found throughout the hide. In return, the birds serve as an early warning system for the buffalo, alerting them to the presence of lions by hissing.
  • Face your fears. Lions attack a buffalo's rear quarters for good reason -- the giant, sharp horns of a buffalo can be used to gouge, throw and hammer away at a lion, and such wounds are often fatal to the would-be attacker. Buffalo, even when retreating, may suddenly stop, turn and attempt to gore a pursuer before turning to flee again.
  • Shrug it off. The sheer size of a buffalo makes it quite difficult to stop mid-run. They are often able to simply shrug off lions that attempt to hang on for dear life. Many buffalo carry the scars of unsuccessful lion attacks.
  • Hang on until help arrives. Even when lions bring down a buffalo, it can take upwards of a half hour to finally kill it, due to its extremely thick hide. The buffalo herd will often return en masse to settle the score and retrieve its fallen comrade.

All of these defensive tactics make buffalo a dangerous dinner for a pride of lions. For more articles on animal behavior, click on the the links below.

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More Great Links


  • African Wildlife Foundation. "Buffalo." (Nov. 9, 2008)
  • BBC. "Mammals Up-close: African Buffalo." (Nov. 9, 2008)
  • Bennitt, Emily. "Okavango Buffalo Research: The Ecology of the African Buffalo (Syncerus caffer) in­ ­the Okavango Delta, Botswana." (Nov. 9, 2008)­
  • Guthrie, Russell Dale. "Frozen Fauna of the Mammoth Steppe." University of Chicago Press, 1990.ISBN 0226311236, 9780226311234. Pgs. 81-110.­lpg=PA101&dq=defenses+of+african+buffalo&source=web&ots=L0Ycc94FsN& amp;sig=5sWOBj ­4VNSiwET5Lyzs45sLVLxk#PPA101,M1
  • Myhrvold, Nathan, PhD. ­"Lions: Africa's Magnificent Predators." Aug. 1, 2007. (Nov. 9, 2008)
  • National Geographic. "Dance of Death in Okavango." (Nov. 9, 2008)
  • Nature. "Intimate Enemies: Lions and Buffalo." (Nov. 9, 2008) ­­
  • San Diego Zoo. "Mammals: Lion." (Nov. 9, 2008)
  • Smithers, R.H.N.; Skinner, J.D.; Chimimba, Christian T. "The Mammals of the Southern African Sub-region." Cambridge University Press, 2005ISBN 0521844185, 9780521844185. Pgs. 395-396.
  • Smithsonian National Zoological Park. "Great Cats: Lion Facts." (Nov. 9, 2008)